Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Wrong Way to Arrange a Nativity

Apparently I've been doing it all wrong.  At least that is what my housekeeper thinks.  Now, I had no idea that there even was a wrong way to display a nativity; unless it involved Michael Jackson or included a lobster, or something like that.

I learned of my improper creche arrangement when Matt and I returned from our lovely Christmas in Cape Town.  Our housekeeper had stayed with Prithvi while we were gone and took great care of her.  Since we came home the dog has wanted to play every time we sit down which makes us think she was quite pampered while we were away.

When we came home, the house looked immaculate; but then we noticed a couple of subtle changes to our decorating.  It appears that our housekeeper thought one of our end tables and our Indian chest should switch spots.  Fair enough, but we swapped them right back.  What we did not see until a few days later was the new configuration of our nativity.  For some reason, I have always grouped Mary, Joseph, and Jesus together, the wise men together, and placed the livestock throughout the scene.  When I returned from Cape Town they looked like this:

Clearly, I should have realized that baby Jesus should be in the middle with everyone else in a semi-circle adoring him.  I will file that away for next year so as not to distress our wonderful housekeeper.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Embarrassing Noises

Sometimes I make embarrassing noises.  The kind of noises one might expect from an elderly British noblewoman.  Think the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey as portrayed by Maggie Smith.  They usually escape when I do something clumsy, which is rather quite often.  Matt asks what I dropped after I make such a noise.  Last week I learned that another sort of event elicits my Dowager Countess cry: surprise. 

I was headed out to a brunch and went into the kitchen to grab the banana bread I had baked the night before.  While I was packing up, I chatted with my housekeeper about something or other.  My memory of the conversation was erased after what happened next.  As I bent down, she asked me if I noticed what was on the counter.  I had not.

I looked up and let out one of my high-pitched, girly shrieks.  A dead mourning dove was upside down on my countertop, six inches from my face, staring at me out of its glassy eyes.  “Where did this come from?” I asked, trying to recover from what I immediately realize was an embarrassing white lady overreaction.  My housekeeper explained that the guard had found it in the yard; they thought it must have flown into an electric wire because it didn’t look injured or sick.  “What is it doing in here?” I enquired, trying not to sound too unnerved.  Apparently, they wanted to show it to me.  Which is nice I guess, but I would have rather seen it outside and not in my kitchen.  Or at least had a little warning!

The guard asked if he could take it home to eat for dinner and I told him he was more than welcome to it.  Surprisingly, Prithvi came running in to investigate my cry of surprise and was too busy trying to comfort me with kisses to notice the dead dove just out of her reach. 

I wonder how long it will be before I find the next animal that came to an untimely end in our yard sitting on my kitchen countertop.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Legal Driving

I thought going to the DMV to register our car in DC was an ordeal.  Well, we did have to wait for hours in freezing temperatures, but at least it was one stop.  Not so here in Zambia.  Last month, I spent time making sure we followed driving laws by registering one of our cars. 

The car registration was supposed to take three hours on a Monday morning.  We get spoiled at the embassy by having local staff members accompanying us and doing all of our paperwork while we do such bureaucratic errands.  It would take unimaginable hours and frustration if I had to do these things on my own.  Painless, right?  I’m sure it would have been if I hadn’t agreed to do it a few days before Independence Day, driving right through the parade route.  Or if they hadn’t been practicing for the parade and closing half of the roads downtown.  I picked up one of our Zambian colleagues at the embassy first thing that morning and he directed me to our first stop: car inspection.

 Did I mention that I was driving the car we just bought that has the steering wheel on the right?  It was my first time driving that car and first time sitting on the right side of the car as a driver.  All sorts of firsts!  I think I scared my passenger a bit when I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of turning on my turn signal.  At least I warned him that might happen.  Anyway, I followed his directions about two miles before we get stopped in gridlock.  Lusaka is not a huge city and traffic usually moves at a decent pace.  But we were stuck.  I felt the road rage rising in my stomach every time I would let one person in and another one or two cars tried to tuck in as well.  Did they not realize that we should take turns?  They didn’t, so I reminded them with my horn and some aggressive driving skills I picked up in DC.  It took us 45 minutes to go another mile before we were able to escape to an alternate route. 

We eventually made it outside the city, having circumvented the parade practice that was causing our traffic woes and headed south on Kafue Road.  I sailed down the main road at a nice clip until we reached a police checkpoint.  Luckily, with diplomatic plates we often get waved right through so we didn’t have a slow down there.  The potholes took care of that.  The car I was driving is a Toyota Corolla which doesn’t have the best clearance.  It felt like I was in a driving video game as I swerved to avoid foot deep holes every few dozen yards.  Again, I think my passenger questioned my driving abilities. We drove past Lilayi, the lovely lodge and game reserve where we saw all of the animals I wrote about in my “saying yes” post.  The car inspection center was way out past the giraffes and baby elephants.  I would have much rather gone to visit them instead.

We turned off the pot-holed highway onto a dirt road that was covered in rocks large enough to do real damage to low sitting cars.  I slowed to a crawl in an attempt to minimize damage to the undercarriage of the car.  It took us a few more minutes to reach the inspection facility which was a well-maintained large parking lot with shaded benches for car owners to wait.  My escort from the embassy took care of everything.  He showed the inspector our VIN number on the engine and we were on our way.  Back down the dirt road and then north on the pot-holed highway.  Three hours after we left the embassy, we reached our second stop: license plate installation. 

The Zambian government issues license plate numbers but leaves the printing and installation to private businesses.  So we headed to Phil’s License Plates to have our new number affixed to the car.  I think I might be the only white woman to ever visit Phil’s.  At least that’s what it felt like.  All of the men standing around the shop immediately stopped talking and stared at me.  I am very used to that after two years in India so it was not a problem.  It was just a bit odd because I rarely get noticed in Lusaka; people here do not generally stare.  Well, I stared right back at all of them because each and every one of those grown men was drinking a child-sized juice box from a tiny straw.  At Phil’s you get a free juice box with every installation. 

With our new plates we made our final stop at the district police station.  I am not quite sure why we needed to go there because I got to stay in the car.  In fact, I don’t think I really needed to go along on the journey at all except to do the driving.  I didn’t have to sign anything or show any proof of identity.  They just needed me for my windshield-wiping, right hand driving skills. 

We made it back to the embassy five hours after we started and I think both of us were ready for a nap.  Or a beer.  I went for the nap as it was only 2pm.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Saying Yes

“During your first month at a new post, say yes to everything.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this, but it is the best advice I’ve been given for life in the Foreign Service.  It means that even though you are jet lagged or might be a bit shy you should try new experiences right off the bat when you move somewhere new.  There are lots of good reasons for this.  Firstly, it is worthwhile to let potential friends know that you like to get out and do things.  Secondly, keeping busy really seems to help culture shock and homesickness.  Thirdly, each post offers so many different opportunities it is good to figure out what you want to do during your time there.

I embraced this method for our move to Lusaka and am so glad I did.  For example, during my first week in Lusaka someone asked me if I would volunteer as a Brownie troop leader.  Sure!  It was a great decision.  The girls are funny, smart, and compassionate and the weekly meetings give me a chance to practice some of my teaching skills.  We sing songs, read stories, play games, and do activities to earn those ever-important badges!

Just this last week Matt and I said yes to giving a little boy a ride from the front gate of the lodge a mile down the road to the main building.  We were visiting an elephant orphanage and lodge on a game reserve just outside of Lusaka.  When we were heading up to the lodge for lunch after an hour watching adorable baby elephants play in the mud, the guard at the gate explained that there was a little boy who went to school on the reserve needed a lift.  Now, usually we are very strict about not giving anyone a ride who we do not know, but we saw the timid little boy and said “climb in”.  We introduced ourselves and I asked the boy to help me look for animals as we drove along.  I am so glad I did!  Having grown up in the area he had a great eye!  He pointed out warthogs, eland, and giraffes.  I must admit that I had a much harder time seeing them even when he showed me exactly where they were.  In my defense, the giraffes looked just like the trees they were munching on until they moved.  He seemed surprised that I had such difficulty finding something he saw so clearly.  If we hadn’t agreed to give the eight year old a lift, we would not have spotted the animals on our own. 

My final example of saying yes that I will share hasn’t actually happened yet.  I have been substitute teaching at the American school and was originally hired as a middle and high school sub.  So far, so good.  I am  getting to know the students and am pleased about how many of them I already recognize.  However, yesterday I received a phone call from the primary school.  They need someone to sub for the preschool class full of four year olds.  Would I do it?  Yes!  I first made sure there would be a teaching assistant, but I immediately said that I would do the job.  Have I ever spent an entire morning with a group of four year olds?  No.  I decided that I might as well give it a shot!  Sure, I am trained as a secondary school teacher, but a few days with little ones sounds like fun.

While I am past the first month in Lusaka, I am going to keep saying yes.  It’s a winning strategy so far! 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sweeping up the sunset

I start every morning here with a walk.  Well, that is after I’ve sat down to breakfast with Matt and nursed a delicious cup of his coffee while reading my “stories” on the internet.  In fact, Prithvi decides when it is time to go – I can only ignore her cries and tail wags for so long.

The mornings are still cool enough that I need to wear a light sweater but I can feel it heating up a bit each day as we make our way into summer.  We head out the gate with a goodbye to the guard and reassure him that we will be back soon.  Our neighborhood streets aren’t too busy that I mind the lack of sidewalk.  We take our walk early enough that most people are still on their way to work; I am beginning to recognize people who live and work in our little residential area.  People are so friendly here that nearly everyone I pass wants to say hello.  Usually, I initiate the greeting because I get a kick out of how peoples’ faces light up when I say “good morning”.  It is such a small thing but it seems to make a huge difference to the Zambians I meet.  Most people in turn ask me how I am and the more outgoing ones inquire after the dog.  One guy even asked me this week if he could have her.  I told him that he probably didn’t want this dog.

Even after almost two months of daily walks I am still amazed at the beauty of this place.  I get lost in my head as I pass the house with the plants that look like they belong in Jurassic Park and that avocado tree that is just about ready to drop at least 300 pieces of fruit. I marvel at the little sparrow-looking birds with their electric blue bellies.   I ponder how each home’s boreholes and the miniature water towers work.  I get the song “Shipoopi” from “The Music Man” stuck in my head every time I turn onto the street whose name sounds exactly the same.  I laugh at Prithvi when she raises her hackles and snorts at the same collie and Boerhounds she passes every morning.  I wave to the gardeners wearing their bright IKB-colored coveralls.  I watch each step when I have to walk up against a garden wall as I continue onto the busy road that completes my loop. 

Most walks are just like that.  However, yesterday I saw something that made me stop in my tracks.  I was astounded to see a gardener sweeping up all of the gorgeous purple petals from a Jacaranda tree.  How could he be getting rid of that incredible lavender carpet that was covering the ugly, pot-holed road?  I wanted him to desist immediately!  It seemed as ludicrous as someone sweeping up the sunset.  Luckily, before I made a fool out of myself I realized there was probably a perfectly valid reason for him to do such a thing – like cars needing to drive on the road without the hazard of slippery flower petals. 

I love my walks each morning and cannot wait to see what the new season brings.  Perhaps I will discover something even better than a purple petal-covered road.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tree Trimming Part 2: Sweaty Palms

In my last post about the tree trimming, I focused on my conversation about American history and politics with a few Zambians.  I didn't describe much of what actually went on as the team of guys removed the potentially roof-damaging branches from our trees.  This is because I had not yet seen them at work.  I wish it had stayed that way.

Later that afternoon, A. came back to check on their progress.  I had enjoyed our talk that morning so I decided to join him as he supervised.  As we walked through the yard I was horrified to see the men blatantly flout the safety instructions they were given just hours before.  Yes, the man in the tree was wearing his harness but it was hanging around his neck instead of securing him to the tree.  The five guys on the ground stood staring up at him as he shimmied along with only his legs wrapped around the bough.

In a repeat of his initial warnings, A. reminded the men that the embassy expected that they follow safety precautions.  The team of tree trimmers just smiled and laughed like they knew he was right but their hands were tied.  They continued watching the one man who was actually working up in the tree and yelled unhelpful suggestions about where he should cut the branch. 

I stared up in terror as the man on the branch hacked away at the tree with a machete and a small ax.  With each blow, he had to steady himself and regain his balance.  I felt my heart speed up and my palms began to sweat.  I was absolutely sure this man would fall to his death in my backyard.  My dread grew worse as his machete cut deeper and deeper.  A. did not make me feel any better as he regaled me with stories of accidents he witnessed over the years.  The most evocative was his tale of a tree trimmer who, like the man in my “matchstick” tree, chose not to use his safety harness.  The man in the story was working on a limb that was overhanging a barbed-wire-topped wall.  I will spare you the details but assure you that although the man landed in the barbed wire, he survived the ordeal after spending several weeks in the hospital.  I was just sure this was going to happen at my house before the day was out.

After another twenty minutes of fretting and trying to convince the tree trimmers to observe ANY safety precaution, I decided that I needed to go inside.  If they wouldn't listen to me I could not spend my day anxiously standing under a tree.  I went back in the house, sat down with a book, and turned up the music. 

Thankfully, no men fell from my trees that day or in the seven subsequent days that it took them to complete the job.   

Sunday, September 1, 2013

"Shopping" for a Church Home in Lusaka

Abbie and I took our first foray into churchgoing since arriving in Lusaka early last month.  A colleague from the embassy and his wife have been doing the circuit of protestant churches around the area and invited us to join them in their “church shopping” adventures.  We have similar theological stances and backgrounds—somewhat liberal, with a solid reform background.  But with Abbie and my Chennai experience in mind—which featured a broad gap between stodgy Roman Catholic congregations and Tamil-language mega-churches—we were skeptical.

Lusaka boasts many churches and even a few mosques, temples (B’hai and Hindu), and other places of worship.  Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses—denominations that one of my previous countries heavily repressed—both operate openly in Lusaka.  Methodist seminary (and several churches), several community churches (think Willow Creek), and a large number of Pentecostal churches.  TV displays a brand of evangelical Christianity that strikes us as a mixture of 1920s tent revivals and Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith.”  Imploring, sweating white pastors conducting faith healings, spitting, shaking, and exorcising form some of the more salacious programs on the Christian TV network (which all of them are, at their root).  Not quite our speed.

We aren’t picky, nor are we that into interdenominational spats over when a baptism should be performed or which hymns congregations should sing.  That said, we wanted to avoid the sad situation of many U.S. churches:  that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in the country.  We wanted a church that Zambians ran, supported, and tended.  Expats were fine, but we didn’t want to cloister ourselves off in mini-America.

Up first was St. Columba’s Presbyterian Church, about two-thirds of the way to downtown Lusaka; it was an easy drive on a Sunday.  St. Columba’s falls on the slightly more liberal side of Zambia’s protestant, even Presbyterian spectrum.  According to another colleague who regularly attends the church, it’s a member of the United Church of Zambia, which is closer to our PCUSA.  A separate strain is more of an “emerging church”—slightly more conservative, in the vein of PCA.  Both claim explorer David Livingstone, who allegedly brought Presbyterianism to Zambia.

The church itself was small, with the sanctuary holding around 100-120 people (depending on how many stood in the back).  We sat with our colleagues on some hard, but not entirely uncomfortable portable wood pews about four rows back from the pulpit.  Ahead of us stood a small electric piano/organ, a small area for a six-person choir (several older women and one man in gold-trimmed purple robes), a podium, a backbench, and a few other chairs.  On the walls were faded felt banners exclaiming “Jehovah Jireh:  God Provides” and “Elohim, our Adonai!” and a tilted hymnboard with about five hymn numbers.  In the center was a sparse, very Calvinistic wooden cross, looking benignly over the congregation.

The congregation itself was around ninety percent Zambian, with a few Western missionaries, American aid workers, and ourselves interspersed around the cozy sanctuary.  Abbie and I noticed a curious collection of teenagers sitting in the first and second rows—a very rare sight back in the States.  They wore sheer white robes over their normal clothes.  Perhaps acolytes?  We’d soon find out.

Our colleague noted that the United Church ordained women, an important aspect of community we found lacking in our otherwise great D.C. church.  A retired female pastor was sitting across the church from us, we found later.  Along the back of the pulpit wall and speckled around the congregation were women in what I can only describe as modern-day Mayflower pilgrim outfits—black dresses with big white collars and light, white bonnets.  They were elders and deacons.

The service began with a litany of hymns mainline Presbyterians would know well:  Just as I am; Holy, Holy, Holy; I Will Enter his Gates; Take my Life and Let it Be” among others.  This was another welcome change from Grace, which tried to push its more traditional congregation through contemporary hymns few people knew.  I prefer the classics, so this suited me fine.  We soon found that the songs printed on the upside-down program were only the tip of the iceberg, disguising hidden songs most of the congregation knew reflexively.  This is good, because the projector-minder was not exactly on his game.

From the muddle of street noise outside, a few flies, and some chattering babies raised a clear, loud voice singing “You are the Alpha and Omega.”  Abbie and I looked around—was there a CD player with a young Beyonce cutting through the congregation?  After a short while, Abbie nudged me and pointed to a somewhat distracted looking teenage girl in the first row.  She was singing in a voice that, even when hampered by her seated position and facing away from the congregation, rose de profundis to fill the church with an antiphonal call to join her.  It was surprising, beautiful, and effortless.  This girl would later join her “junior choir” in another hymn that would have put much larger, better trained choirs to shame.  Her male equal sang in a clear tenor across from her, held together by perfectly balanced, crystalline four-part harmony from the other teenagers who formed the “junior choir”.  It very nearly brought me to tears.  The “senior choir”—those five ladies and the (usual) one man—presided over this younger group with well-meaning, but tinny and off tune warblings.  You could tell they felt it though, and that was what mattered.

The pastor then embarked on a Scripture-embroidered sermon focusing on the analogy running through the Bible of the vine and the branches.  It was well-rooted and well-voiced, but lacked a “so what” at times.  Still, the theology was solid, if slightly more conservative than what we were used to.  In the panoply of churches, though, we felt it was probably very close to the middle of the road.  The reverend punctuated his sermon with Africa-focused tidbits, including a tesseracted version of our “storm and boat” analogy, featuring a man trapped by a lion who ignores the tree God provides him in his obstinacy.  The lion eats the man, thanking God for providing.  I forgot how it related to the sermon, but it was entertaining.  We rode the reverend’s rounded r’s and deep vowels through an eloquent, if a bit rambling sermon.  Not bad, altogether.

After the sermon (and after a few more secret hymns, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostle’s Creed), we reached a heartfelt communion, featuring pre-squared bread and actual wine.  Well, rosé.  Rosé blood of Christ.  Still, I thought it was a good bit of adherence to the actual last supper (and way better than rosemary ciabatta body-of-Christ bread we got one week at Grace)!

The service wrapped up with a few more prayers and a rousing, surprising Nyanja hymn that sent the whole congregation out to tea and cakes on the tips of their toes.  Mini-Beyonce led this, too.  Not unsurprisingly, I met a Davidson grad, who claimed a long pedigree of Davidsonians in his bloodline, including a daughter who graduated just two years after me (though I couldn’t place her).  Small world.

We’ll continue our church search, but I have a good feeling about this one.  When my colleague invited me last night to come with him today, he mentioned that the church was “conservative, but with a good community.” After the service, we met an nearly toothless, 87-year old church member who warmly greeted us, wrote down my place of work, and promised she and her church would treat her like their own “babies.”  I could get used to her fellowship; the rest of the congregation brought the same warmth and hospitality to members and visitors alike—something we’ve come to expect and anticipate about the lovely Zambian public.  I think we’ll be back.